Jan Karski was born April 24, 1914, in Lodz, Poland. He received a masters degree in Law and Diplomatic Science at the University of Lwow in 1935 and then served in various diplomatic posts in Germany, Switzerland, and Great Britain between 1936 and 1938.
At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, he became a POW of the Red Army. Two months later he escaped and returned to occupied Poland, joining the Underground Polish Army. As a member of the Polish underground resistance movement in World War II, Karski repeatedly crossed enemy lines to act as a courier between his occupied nation and the West. Prior to his last departure from Poland, he was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto by the Jewish underground in order to witness the horrendous conditions and report to the outside world.
After touring the Warsaw Ghetto, he donned a disguise to enter a Nazi concentration camp in Eastern Poland. There he witnessed mass murder.
In November 1942, he delivered an impassioned plea on behalf of Poland’s Jews to top Allied officials in London. On July 28, 1943, in a lengthy White House meeting, he told President Franklin D. Roosevelt about the extermination of the Jews of Europe.
Jan Karski — a young, Roman Catholic Pole — tried to stop the Holocaust.
His mission failed.
In 1944 Karski published Story of a Secret State, in which he related his experiences in wartime Poland. The book was initially to be made into a film, but this never occurred. The book proved to be a major success, with more than 400,000 copies sold in the United States until the end of WWII.
After the war Karski was unable to return to communist-ruled Poland and made his home in the United States and began his studies at Georgetown University, where he received a PhD in 1952. He taught at Georgetown for 40 years in the areas of East European affairs, comparative government and international affairs, rising to become one of the most celebrated and notable members of its faculty. In 1954, he became a citizen of the United States. In 1985, he published the academic study The Great Powers and Poland.
His attempts at stopping the Holocaust were forgotten. It was not until 1978 that Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah re-discovered Karski’s wartime service. In 1994, E. Thomas Wood and Stanisław M. Jankowski published Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust. After the fall of communism in Poland in 1989, Karski’s wartime role was officially acknowledged there. He received the Order of the White Eagle (the highest Polish civil decoration) and the Order Virtuti Militari (the highest military decoration awarded for bravery in combat). He was married in 1965 to Pola Nirenska, a Polish Jew whose family perished in the Holocaust. She committed suicide in 1992. Karski died in Washington, D.C. in 2000. They had no children.